While South was enjoying its best season in 15 years last fall one could still hear the whispers. One could hear the doubters pointing to all the senior starters and saying this was a one-year wonder.
The returning players heard them. South went 10-2 last year, capturing the NTL Small-School championship while winning 10 games and its first playoff game for the first time in 15 years. With so many quality seniors graduating, surely the good times could not last.
Surely, they have.
While 2012 was all about reviving the program, 2013 has been all about sustaining it. South is playing in its second consecutive District 4 Class A championship game Saturday at Southern Columbia, again is NTL champions, and again has 10 wins. Turns out last year was just the start.
"We've come a long way," fullback/linebacker John Peters said. "I remember when coach (Chris) Eiswerth came here everyone started coming to the weight room and really getting into it. Before, not everyone came and we started hitting the weights, started working hard and got everything going."
Keeping it going into 2013 was a challenge. The Mounties had to replace nearly every starting offensive linemen, two dynamic running backs and most of the defensive starters. Players who were two and three-year starters no longer were there.
District 4 Class Championship
South Williamsport at Southern Columbia
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Winner plays: District 2 champion, either Old Forge (10-1) or Dunmore (11-0)
Last meeting: Southern defeated South, 48-14 in Week 4
South ppg-42.1; ppa-21.8; ypg-401.8; ypa-278.7
Last playoff appearance-2012: beat Bloomsburg 32-16 in semifinals; lost to Southern 47-12 in final
South facts: The Mounties are seeking their first district championship since 1997 when they advanced to the state final. South is playing Southern for the second straight year in the final after losing, 47-12 last year. The Mounties are 20-3 the last two years and Southern is the only team to beat it during that span. South lost a lot of starters from last year's team, but has been just as strong, repeating as NTL Small School champions and downing previously undefeated Wellsboro, 42-28 on the road in last week's semifinals. South gained 429 yards against Wellsboro which had been allowing just 151 yards per game. All-state candidate Dominick Bragalone ran for 316 yards and four touchdowns behind an offensive line that has been outstanding all year. He has shattered Lycoming County records for yards and touchdowns and needs 60 yards to become the area's first-ever 3,000-yard rusher. Fullback John Peters ran well last week too, gaining 68 yards and scoring a touchdown on 11 carries. Quarterback Matt Boone has done a nice job running the offense and has been intercepted just once in 11 games. He has thrown for 213 yards and two touchdowns the last two weeks. Riley Hengler is a big-play receiver who has a nice blend of speed and size. He also has been a big part of a strong secondary. Jon Pulizzi is a three-year starter in the secondary and came up big last week, intercepting a pass in the end zone while making nine tackles. Linebacker Noah Martin had a big game, making nine tackles and intercepting a pass. Junior linebacker Ryan Seagrave has had a breakout year, intercepting four passes and returning a fumble for a touchdown. He made a drive-ending fourth-quarter interception last week.
South player to watch-Sean McCormick: A three-year starter, McCormick has been instrumental to the team's huge resurgence. He is a hard hitter who defends the pass well and flies to the ball. McCormick had a team-high 10 tackles last week.
Southern ppg-51.0; ppa-12.2; ypg-457.2; ypa-208.1
Last playoff appearance-2012: beat Line Mountain, 28-21 in semifinals; beat South 47-12 in final, lost to Dunmore 35-29 in states
Southern facts: The Tigers are attempting to win their sixth straight district title and 23rd in 24 years. Southern went undefeated in the regular season for a second straight year and has scored 44 or more points every week. Bloomsburg challenged Southern last week but the Tigers scored 28 straight second-half points to turn a close game into a 49-14 romp. Fullback Adam Feudale ran for 180 yards and five touchdowns last week and is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. The senior ran for 115 yards and a score in Week 4 against South. The Tigers have a terrific offensive line that has helped them run for 3,624 yards, second only to Troy in District 4. Four running backs have gained more than 400 yards. The offense, though, is far from one-dimensional. Sophomore quarterback Nick Becker has thrown for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns despite often not playing in the second half. He has struggled some down the stretch, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions the last four weeks. Southern's defense is stingy and held Bloomsburg to 211 yards last week. The state's No. 1-ranked team had an uncharacteristic three turnovers last week but still has a plus-10 turnover ratio.
Southern player to watch-Luke Rarig: An outstanding wide receiver and defensive back, Rarig is a consistent big-play threat. He averages 20.1 yards per catch and is Becker's go-to guy. He also is a quality cornerback and returned an interception for a touchdown against South in last year's regular-season game.
Outlook: Southern has been a juggernaut all season but South is mighty good too. Many teams lose before they play Southern because they do not believe they can win. South must believe-playing its best game this season would help too.
- By CHRIS MASSE
It is the mark of how far South (10-1) has come as a program that it has not missed a beat despite facing that scenario. Many of the names have changed, but the results have not. The Mounties have won seven consecutive games and ended Wellsboro's perfect season last Friday, downing the Green Hornet, 42-28, in the district semifinals.
"We love South Williamsport. We love the school, the community and the kids," said Eiswerth, a South resident. "We really try to make this a part of our life and the kids buy into it and pay the price and grind and work hard. It's great for the community. It's exciting."
So is the team.
South opened it season with a thrilling 27-26 win at Bloomsburg and has won its last nine games by double-digit margins. Wellsboro entered the district semifinals undefeated and featuring the area's top-ranked offense and defense. The offense had posted video game-like statistics, and the defense was allowing just 151 yards per game.
Lost in all that was how well South had played. They had some impressive numbers, too. More importantly, the Mounties had some outstanding players and coaches. South never trailed, forced Wellsboro into its worst offensive performance, and wore down the Green Hornets while gaining 429 yards in its signature win.
"Wellsboro being 10-0 and us being the Small School champions against the (NTL) Big School champions, we had something to prove," wide receiver/cornerback Riley Thomas said. "We just wanted to play South football and take it to them and run our bread and butter and that's what we did and it got us the win."
That has produced 20 wins the past two seasons, impressive for a program that went seven seasons without a winning record prior to 2012. What stood out Friday was players who did not start last year making big plays. The rebuilt offensive line shined as it has all season, Ryan Seagrave made a game-changing interception, and Thomas made one of the year's best catches, scoring a last-second, 28-yard touchdown to end the first half.
Throw in returning starters like Sean McCormick, Noah Martin and Jon Pulizzi igniting a hard-hitting defense, and running back Dominick Bragalone producing 316 yards and four touchdowns and the game was a microcosm of the entire season. Some athletes are returning starters, others not, but they can all play.
Some Mounties did not even play high school football before this season. Thomas, Ryan Foran and Brett Garbrick had not played high school football prior to this season and all three have made huge impacts. Thomas and Foran were part of a strong secondary that came up big against Wellsboro, and Garbrick has kicked 51 extra points, the most in South history.
"I played Pop Warner and flag football growing up and I just wanted to be a part of it," Thomas said. "I watched the team from last year and how successful they were so I decided to come out and give it a shot and we've done some great things."
South romped to its second straight NTL title and has now won 12 consecutive league games dating back to 2011. It technically also can hang an overall NTL title banner to its expanding collection. Now, the Mounties want to hang a district title banner.
Many are saying that cannot be done since Southern is the state's No. 1-ranked team. But many also said South could not have a season similar to 2012. The Mounties not only have proven they can do that, they now have a chance to surpass it.
"I'm pretty excited," Peters said. "They're a tough team so we're going to have to work hard and play hard."
South always does. The results speak for themselves. The good times look like they might continue, too. There is a strong core of underclassmen and the junior high team lost just once, handing Wellsboro its only loss while becoming the first team to score against Danville.
South is proving to not just be an outstanding team, but an outstanding program.
"It feels great to turn this program around. It had been a long time," three-year starting safety Jon Pulizzi said. "It's a credit to Coach Eiswerth and the all the coaches for getting the program going in the right direction. It's going to keep moving forward, too."